It’s hard to doubt that legendarily entitled Millennial social-justice warriors will finally go too far, and not even The Onion will be able to sufficiently parody their aggressive fragility. In a campus culture saturated with controversy over trigger warnings and so-called micro-aggressions, my favorite story comes from Brown University.
Even some of Brown’s coddling administrators had to shake their heads at the student response to a debate between leftist feminist Jessica Valenti and libertarian Wendy McElroy. A campus debate is usually a tame-enough event, but this debate would deal with the alleged campus-rape crisis, and McElroy was expected to depart from college orthodoxy and dissent from the myth that women at American universities are uniquely in danger of being raped.
To help students “recuperate” from the debate, student activists set up a “safe space” that featured coloring books, cookies, Play-Doh, and videos of puppies. Yes, adult students at one of the world’s most prestigious universities intentionally re-created a day-care center for one another.
Conservatives often alternate between laughing at Millennials’ fragility and expressing alarm at its long-term consequences. Viral videos show the campus meltdowns in living color and students so eager to demonstrate their tolerance that they can’t bring themselves (in one famous example) to say a five-foot-nine white man is “wrong” to self-identify as a six-foot-five Chinese woman.
Yet in attacking Millennial activists and their administrative enablers, we not only mislabel their malady — they’re not nearly as fragile as they claim — we also fail to identify the real culprits. Snowflakes aren’t spontaneously generated. They’re made, formed largely by parents who’ve loved their children into the messes they’ve become.
The upper-middle-class American style of parenting is creating a generation of children who are trained from birth to believe three things: first, that the central goals of life are success and emotional well-being; second, that the child’s definitions of success and emotional well-being are authoritative; and third, that parents and other authority figures exist to facilitate the child’s desires. If the child is the star of his own life’s story, then parents and teachers act as agents, lawyers, and life coaches. They are the child’s chief enablers.
Parents, for their part, didn’t set out to raise fragile children. Instead, they desperately desired that their kids first be safe and happy. Then — later — safe, happy, and successful. Faced with kids they loved and perhaps still reeling from their own childhood problems, including growing up during the first massive wave of divorce and in an era of increasing crime, Millennials’ parents (younger Boomers and older members of Generation X) decided that they were going to get parenting right.
The superficial displays of their parental care and caution are there for all to see. Out of exaggerated fear for their children’s physical safety, upper-middle-class mothers and fathers devote themselves to “helicopter parenting,” hovering and doing all they can to smooth the bumps of life, well into their offspring’s young-adult years.
New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has dubbed this phenomenon the “flight to safety” and sees its manifestations in parents who “pulled in the reins” to keep their children from roaming as freely as kids in generations past. Playgrounds were redesigned. Schools put in place “zero tolerance” policies to squelch even the hint of violence. The message was simple: Even in a time of declining crime and exploding prosperity (especially for upper-income families), the world was dangerous and full of terrors.
But why are such fragile, fearful children simultaneously so aggressive? Isn’t such strident activism inconsistent with the fear hypothesis? Haidt ascribes much of their ideological aggression to having grown up in an age of increasing polarization. Simply put, Republicans and Democrats hate one another more than ever. Writing in The Atlantic, Haidt and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff note that “implicit or unconscious biases are now at least as strong across political parties as they are across races.” Thus, “it’s not hard to imagine why students arriving on campus today might be more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past.”
This analysis rings true but seems incomplete. In addition, a lifetime of experience has told student activists that complaints to parents and teachers get results. Thus, the paradox of the modern Millennial snowflake. In the name of their own alleged vulnerability and fragility, they engage in dramatic protest, seek conflict, and relentlessly attack opponents. These snowflakes are dangerous.
How does this happen? Think of the dilemmas that parents face because of their children. Their children participate in sports and run into a coach who is perceived as too angry or who doesn’t give the child a fair chance. They go to school and inevitably encounter teachers who don’t teach well or who teach subjects they find irritating or challenging. On the playgrounds, they face their first bully or their first physical conflict. And at each stage, they do what kids do: They tell their parents.
When I went to my parents with these dilemmas, the response was often some form of “Suck it up.” I once told my dad that my coach threw a basketball at a kid’s head when he was talking during practice. My dad laughed. When I broke my right arm in fifth grade, I asked if I could get a break on homework while I learned to write with my left. My dad told me the struggle would teach me how to work hard. If parents ever intervened in playground conflicts, the shame was deep and enduring.
These are small but telling examples from life’s little challenges. My parents’ priority was building character, not maintaining my happiness. They wanted to raise a child who would love God and live by the Golden Rule. So I had to learn that I wasn’t the center of the universe. I had to learn that I was often wrong. And I had to learn the daily courage necessary to confront and overcome problems on my own, without constantly appealing to a higher earthly authority for aid and comfort.
Presently, however, many parents view their child’s pain, anger, or inconvenience less as an opportunity to teach the child a lesson about character and perseverance than as an imperative to come to the child’s rescue. Thus, parents themselves confront the angry coach, find all the help the child needs to succeed academically (including sometimes even doing homework for the child), talk to the principal about playground conflict, and negotiate with teachers to optimize the child’s classroom experience.
The parent emerges first as savior, then as friend. All decent parents covet a relationship with their child, but there are countless times when parent and child naturally clash, and — especially as those children get older — the clashes can strain or fracture the relationship. Parents preserve friendships with their kids in countless small ways: extending curfews on request, purchasing items that strain the family budget, excusing minor infractions of family rules. If the choice is between confront and consent, parents consent again and again, each time vowing to themselves that they’ll stand up to their child if the issue is “truly” big.
Not long ago, I was speaking to the headmaster of a large Christian school who was lamenting the extraordinary power children exercised in the parent–child relationship. In the aftermath of the Obergefell decision, the school was considering changing its policy handbook to clearly state that the school teaches that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. The headmaster said that he’d already received pushback from parents, not because the parents had any real conviction on the issue (and those who did were generally quite conservative) but because their children demanded the parents take a stand. The definition of marriage had become a strain in the parent–child relationship, and parents deferred to their children to remain “friends.”
Stories like this are legion. Impose virtually any limit on a child’s desires and there is sure to be a parental revolt that begins with the phrase, “My child wants . . .” The rest of the argument flows entirely from the child’s desire, which overrules all other reasoning.
We mislabel them as fragile because their unhappiness comes so easily and their tolerance for adversity is so low. But they are not weak. They’re instead doing exactly what they’ve been taught to do since that first bad soccer practice or kindergarten conflict. They scream as loudly as they can for Mom and Dad — for the teacher or the principal, acting in loco parentis — and the authority figure duly obeys. And why not? When happiness and friendship are the goals, when comfort is the highest calling, the response will be immediate. If it’s not, then kids will find new friends.
Graduation season is upon us. At countless dinners, emotional parents and children will reflect on their journey, and two sentences will be uttered time and again: “Mom, you weren’t just my mother. You were also my best friend.” Those words, tearfully delivered and gladly received, are the reason that the present cultural trend is likely to endure, at least for the foreseeable future. Parents are raising exactly the children they want to raise.
But it cannot last. Life is too hard, and authority figures are ultimately too weak to guarantee enduring joy and success. So the aggressively fragile generation will face a choice: either greater anger and aggression as they desperately flail for the utopia that can never come, or a rediscovery of the virtues that enable perseverance.
In the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, we see the flailing. Out from under their parents’ roof, out from under the watchful eye of sympathetic administrators, who’s the parent now? Who has the authority to address their grievances and ease their fears? Responding to the fear and uncertainty, a geriatric socialist (a fatherly sort of fellow) steps in with his call for free health care and education (neither in fact free), and protection from the rough-and-tumble world of liberty and markets. In other words, Sanders wants to make the entire country a “safe space.”
College campuses are centers of Sanders support in large part because they represent small examples of the world he wants to build. Tuition represents an extreme form of progressive taxation as rich families fund generous breaks for the poor, and everyone enjoys the same, often luxurious facilities. Each student has access to an immense social-welfare infrastructure, complete with diversity offices for every ethnicity and easy access to doctors and counselors. College is the ultimate nanny, and many former students miss her warm embrace.
It’s a popular sport to scorn entitled Millennials — I’m guilty of it myself — but when people live as Millennials were raised to live, where does the lion’s share of the blame lie? Parents placed their child’s joy first in large part because it made them happy. It seemed win-win. Parents and children enriched each other’s lives as parents fed off the joy they provided their kids. Life as an adult is not a problem so easily solved.
Eventually children leave home (and Brown and Yale), and when they do, they find that temper tantrums are not so well received, authority figures don’t prioritize their joy, and the hard work of building character must be started now, years late. Even Bernie Sanders cannot heal the hurt to come.